Purpose: Prenatal stress (PS) during pregnancy affects in utero- and postnatal child brain-development. Key systems affected are the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis and the autonomic nervous system (ANS). Maternal- and fetal ANS activity can be gauged non-invasively from transabdominal electrocardiogram (taECG). We propose a novel approach to assess couplings between maternal (mHR) and fetal heart rate (fHR) as a new biomarker for PS based on bivariate phase-rectified signal averaging (BPRSA). We hypothesized that PS exerts lasting impact on fHR. Methods: Prospective case–control study matched for maternal age, parity, and gestational age during the third trimester using the Cohen Perceived Stress Scale (PSS-10) questionnaire with PSS-10 over or equal 19 classified as stress group (SG). Women with PSS-10 < 19 served as control group (CG). Fetal electrocardiograms were recorded by a taECG. Coupling between mHR and fHR was analyzed by BPRSA resulting in fetal stress index (FSI). Maternal hair cortisol, a memory of chronic stress exposure for 2–3 months, was measured at birth. Results: 538/1500 pregnant women returned the questionnaire, 55/538 (10.2%) mother–child pairs formed SG and were matched with 55/449 (12.2%) consecutive patients as CG. Maternal hair cortisol was 86.6 (48.0–169.2) versus 53.0 (34.4–105.9) pg/mg (p = 0.029). At 36 + 5 weeks, FSI was significantly higher in fetuses of stressed mothers when compared to controls [0.43 (0.18–0.85) versus 0.00 (− 0.49–0.18), p < 0.001]. Conclusion: Prenatal maternal stress affects the coupling between maternal and fetal heart rate detectable non-invasively a month prior to birth. Lasting effects on neurodevelopment of affected offspring should be studied. Trial registration: Clinical trial registration: NCT03389178.
- Bivariate phase-rectified signal averaging
- Fetal autonomic nervous system
- Fetal heart rate
- Fetal stress index
- Prenatal stress
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Obstetrics and Gynecology